Meet me in cyberspace

E-meeting systems have evolved into more than ways to save time and money on travel. We see how three companies are finding that they can track and shape projects as they produce more-focused meetings.

Virtual meetings conducted over the Internet were once viewed as little more than a clumsy stopgap when time or the company travel budget made in-person meetings impossible. But improved technology that streamlines workflow, facilitates knowledge management and allows corporations to do more in less time and at a lower cost has transformed e-meetings into one of the best choices for many kinds of group communication, according to users.

Features of e-meeting software can include integrated audio- and video-conferencing, application sharing with markup capabilities, real-time feedback, whiteboards, instant surveys and text chat. In addition, some technologies automatically record meetings for editing and playback and store recordings and materials such as agendas, minutes and presentations for easy retrieval.

"We're just now seeing the point where e-meetings are getting on the mainstream radar -- where it has become the norm for facilitating conversations or conferencing, instead of the exception," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah.

And as the software and interfaces have become more sophisticated, it has become easier for people to start using tools effectively, O'Kelly says.

But there are some things a company should look out for when moving to virtual meetings, says Eli Mina, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based management consultant. Virtual meetings work better in small groups, and it's more difficult to build trust and team cohesion when people can't see or hear one another, he says. E-meetings also reduce flexibility, making some interactive discussion techniques, like breaking into smaller groups, almost impossible.

To evaluate how the benefits and disadvantages of virtual meetings stack up in real business situations, Computerworld took a look at how three companies are using virtual meeting software.

Wyndham International: beyond training

Dallas-based Wyndham International initially turned to Centra Software's real-time online collaboration tool to facilitate employee training in its new property management system. The hotel chain soon decided it could save time and money using Centra's e-meeting application as well.

Since Wyndham started using Centra's software four years ago, it has saved more than US$1 million in travel-related and telecommunications expenses, says Mark Eggers, manager of online learning at the company.

"We use it for weekly and monthly conference calls, and because it's voice over IP, we save about US$10,000 to US$15,000 a month on our telephone bill," Eggers says.

Centra's software enables application sharing, and it displays graphics, PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets. "We can show the information to people rather than just talking about it on the phone," says Eggers.

Centra's e-meeting tool also brings back some of the etiquette to the process because people have to click on an icon if they want to speak, rather than cutting a colleague off while participating in a teleconference, Eggers says.

Centra's users can initiate an e-meeting by clicking on the Centra shortcut in their Windows task-bar notification area or right from their desktop, says John Walsh, senior vice president of engineering and operations. Participants can then attend a scheduled event by clicking on a link in their e-mail, calendar or instant message invitation, he says.

"Centra even allows outside vendors to participate in a Wyndham meeting," Eggers says. "We are on the Internet with the system, and they just come out to our system and get the client software on their machines. It takes a few minutes, and they're ready to go."

And the more people use it, the more they love it, Eggers says.

"Centra has done a very nice job of capturing a familiar user model," O'Kelly says. "So if I'm used to facilitating meetings with groups of people, I find familiar concepts when using a tool like Centra -- like there's a podium, and there might be a seating chart, and people can raise their hands."

Bausch & Lomb: eye to productivity

Bausch & Lomb chose Documentum's eRoom collaboration tool to bring together globally dispersed teams to develop new products, says Paul Loda, director of new product development at the eye care company. A maker of content management software, Documentum is a subsidiary of EMC.

"Before eRoom, people were flying all over the place to try and get some face time," Loda says.

Before the company purchased several hundred seats of eRoom in 2000, Bausch & Lomb's product developers would also waste time and money exchanging information via fax and e-mail, he says. In addition, numerous team and management meetings were often needed for product updates and approvals, he says.

Now all the product information is contained within eRoom, and each team member is given immediate access to every type of document and information in a common workspace on the Web, he says. Project leaders and team members communicate during the e-meetings via audio conference calls, Loda says.

On one project alone, Bausch & Lomb saved US$30,000 on travel costs, while the total investment in eRoom -- US$10,000 for a server license and 15 licenses at US$300 each -- was under US$20,000, he says.

"And just because of cuts in travel, people had more free work time to get more stuff done because they didn't have to sit in another meeting," Loda says. He adds, "I like the fact that everything is kept in one place and it's accessible anytime, anyplace, by anybody who you have given permission to get to it."

Real Time Services, the integrated component of eRoom's digital workplace, provides tools for real-time meetings, presentations and collaboration, according to Documentum. RTS works via a standard Web browser and doesn't require client installation for meeting attendees.

The service provides capabilities for group edits, whiteboard sessions, real-time discussions and one-to-many presentations. This enables distributed teams to work simultaneously on projects and to capture, index and reuse the collective output of each session, says Lance Shaw, director of product marketing at Documentum. In addition, RTS lets users share their desktops and allows participants to access applications on them remotely, he says.

ERoom members log into a session with a name and password. RTS also gives nonmembers invited to eRoom access to meetings via a secure URL, Loda says.

Steelcase global teamwork

Office furniture company Steelcase uses Groove Networks' desktop collaboration software, Groove Virtual Office, to connect virtual teams with members in locations around the world, says Florent Burion, international CRM team leader at Steelcase. But the software provides more than a link, he says.

"Groove's meetings tool really helps us structure the meeting process -- and makes sure everybody in a team is using that process in a simple but disciplined fashion," Burion says.

And it has cut down on face-to-face meetings, he says.

"We have some Web development teams with very tight time frames, including the team in charge of renovating our corporate Web site," Burion says. "The team leader wanted to get the whole team up to speed quickly without having to have lots of team-building or lots of face-to-face meetings."

In addition, Burion estimates that Steelcase has been able to save 20 percent to 40 percent on travel time, though Steelcase hasn't tracked exact figures on time saved or costs cut.

Virtual Office lets teams contextually share files, manage projects and coordinate business processes by allowing them to do things like mark up documents and show PowerPoint presentations within secure workspaces synchronized across all team members' PCs, says Michael Helfrich, Groove's vice president of product management.

The software's decentralized architecture enables teams to work online, off-line and across firewalls -- in real time and independently -- while freeing IT departments from costly server and network infrastructure requirements, Helfrich says. Groove's virtual meeting tool allows users to communicate via instant messaging, chat or voice-over-IP systems.

A meeting wizard takes users through the process of creating a meeting and inviting team members. Once a meeting is created, any participant can add agenda topics, create action items, attach files and record minutes from a tabbed interface.

Such features, available in Virtual Office and other e-meeting software systems, have gone a long way toward breaking down barriers to user acceptance, according to analysts.

"We have been using the meetings tool extensively, and everywhere it has been used, we have definitely noticed an increase in productivity and alignment of teams," Burion says. "In the Groove satisfaction survey we are conducting at the moment, the meetings tool is among the most-often-used tools and rated highly in terms of usefulness."

Pros and cons of virtual meetings

Eli Mina, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based management consultant, has outlined the advantages and drawbacks of e-meetings.

Pros

Reduced costs: A virtual meeting is generally less expensive than a face-to-face meeting. The costs of travel, meals and accommodations are eliminated.

Reduced disruptions: Participants don't have to change their schedules or travel to a different location -- or even leave their offices.

Enhanced sense of purpose: Recognizing the limitations of a virtual meeting, it's easier to establish the need for focused discussions.

Increased objectivity: Unless videoconferencing is used, individuals aren't distracted by the facial expressions of others. This has the potential of forcing introspection and critical thinking in private.

Cons

Group size: Whereas virtual meetings can work well for small groups, they are usually difficult to manage with large gatherings.

Reduced flexibility: In a virtual meeting, it's impossible to break into small groups or employ other interactive discussion techniques.

No social interaction: The interpersonal chemistry and synergy that develops in face-to-face meetings are lost in a virtual meeting. It's much more difficult to build trust and team cohesion when people can't see or hear one another.

Unique challenges: It can be difficult to identify who is speaking, establish a speaker's lineup, ensure equality and fairness, and count votes.

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More about Burton GroupCentra NetworksDocumentumEMC CorporationGroove NetworksOnline LearningSteelcase AustraliaVirtual OfficeWyndham International

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